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Hope is justified but be realistic

Even though they failed at the last hurdle, by hosting the final the Lions ensured that it was a relatively successful Super Rugby season for South Africa. The question now switches to what that means for the Springbok chances in the forthcoming Rugby Championship.

The instinctive response to that should be to point out that the Lions also made the final last year, and yet the international season turned into possibly the worst ever for South African rugby, with a 50-point home-field walloping from the All Blacks and defeats to Wales, Italy and Argentina, providing a choice of nadir points for the national team.

There is something different though about this year. In 2016 Allister Coetzee glibly ignored the qualified success of the Lions – it is only ultimate success if you win the competition – and until much later in the year, by which time it was too late, he ignored calls to base his team around a spine of Lions players.

That has changed this year to the extent that I sense that it might not be long before Lions coaches and officials get a bit miffed at how the template for their success has been transported to the national set-up. The Boks are right though to draw on what worked for their most successful Super Rugby franchise.

So what can we expect from the Boks based on what happened in Super Rugby? Coetzee was quite emphatic after the last test against France that a successful Super Rugby challenge would do wonders for confidence and continue the momentum picked up by the national team in June. Coetzee was, after all, part of Jake White’s management team at the 2007 World Cup, when the Boks drew a lot from the confidence built up when two South African teams, the Bulls and the Sharks, contested that year’s Super 14 final.

But if you look back at history, the assumption that Super Rugby performance relates to Bok performances can be challenged. The Boks did get it right again in 2009, when they beat the British and Irish Lions and won the Tri-Nations off the back of the Bulls again winning Super Rugby, but in 2010 two South African teams, the Bulls and Stormers, contested the final and yet the Boks went horribly off the rails that year.

It has worked the other way too. In 1998 the Sharks were the only local team to be even remotely competitive, and even they weren’t that good, and yet with Nick Mallett as their coach, the Boks went on to win the Tri-Nations for the first time and build up a record-equalling winning sequence.

So perhaps South Africans, while acknowledging that the coaches do have it right this time by drawing heavily on what worked for the Lions, shouldn’t base too much of their optimism around what happened in Super Rugby.

What they can do is draw hope from what happened in June. The strength of the French team they beat may have been questionable, but all three wins were by emphatic margins. More than that, there were noticeable improvements across the board, in particular to defence and attack, and perhaps most importantly of all, they looked like a team that had been coached and that was imbued with passion for the jersey.

I sense they may miss Warren Whiteley as a captain, and it was a big blow to their Championship chances when it was confirmed that the Lions leader had been ruled out. Elton Jantjies cannot afford another misfire performance like he had against the Sharks in the Super Rugby quarterfinal, but provided it doesn’t happen too early in the competition, the Boks do have the comfort of knowing that Handre Pollard is heading back to fitness. If Curwin Bosch can make a success of what could be little cameo appearances as a replacement, it will add much needed depth at flyhalf.

The loose trio configuration in Whiteley’s absence could also be problematic. It seemed so cut and dried in June, but now a lot less so. Allow me to say too that the back three remains a concern. Ruan Combrinck would definitely be on one of the wings if I was selecting the team.

Otherwise it is mostly positive, certainly in comparison to last year, though admittedly that isn’t saying much. What South Africans should be careful of is using the All Blacks as the measuring stick at this point of the team’s development. The Boks are just starting out on the salvage operation from 2016 and expecting to match or beat the best team in the world at this juncture is a bit like thinking about the notorious Polly Shortts, the sharp and long incline seven kilometres from the finish in the 89 km up Comrades Marathon, when you have just left the starting line.

In other words, they need to cross the bridges when they come to them and not before, they need to be ambitious but also realistic, they need to take it step by step. Wins in the opening matches in Port Elizabeth and Salta would represent a great start and follow up wins in both matches against the Wallabies would confirm real progress being made. A win over the All Blacks would be an unexpected bonus. If they did that and got it right in the other four games, it would probably mean them winning the Championship, which after last season would be nothing short of unbelievable.

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